Masuku shite / yurete iru nari / kisha no kyaku (“Mask-covered faces: / travellers aboard a train, / carriages swaying”). One might assume that the author of this haiku had in mind the Covid pandemic. In fact, it was composed in 1935 by the Japanese poet Kyoshi Takahama. Here the Anglo-Japanese word masuku (“mask”) is used as a season word, suggesting wintry temperatures and influenza outbreaks. With the opening of Japan to the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century, the Japanese readily adopted Western medicine. Doctors and public-health officials, spurred on by the expanded knowledge of microscopic pathogens, had begun to encourage the wearing of surgical masks. As in the West, the impetus for their general use was the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. The aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, which damaged the country’s sewage system, also led to widespread masking. The custom endured, both here and in neighboring Asian countries, sometimes becoming a cause for cross-cultural tension with citizens of the very Western countries where masks had first appeared. Then came the Covid crisis, transforming what some considered an exotic “East Asian” proclivity into the “new normal” all over the world.
Ironically, masks have not been mandated in Japan, though everywhere in public one sees notices, phrased in the politest Japanese, gently urging their use: “Thank you for your esteemed cooperation.” As of June, we are being told that we may again show our faces, especially if we are old and prone to heatstroke. So far, however, habit has trumped the new policy: the masks are still on.
As of this writing some 76 percent of Japan’s population has received at least two doses of a Covid vaccine, but vaccination is not compulsory here and, while some are skeptical of the new vaccines, they have not become ideologically polarizing. At our small church in Chiba, east of Tokyo, we are asked to comply with the eligibility requirement for Mass attendance, as determined by the ward (ku) in which we live. Church receptionists ask us to measure our temperatures and to fill in a form with our names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Instead of holy water, there is disinfectant. While karaoke bars are open in the evening, there is no Sunday-morning hymn singing. But, again, it is not the government that determines such policies, but rather the archdiocese.
Japan has often been characterized as a country ruled less by codified laws than by consensus and social harmony. The Sino-Japanese word wa (“peace, harmony”) appears early in the nation’s history as designating Japan. Wa appears in ten imperial-era names, including Shōwa (1926–1989)—“enlightened peace”—and Reiwa (2010–)—“fair and just peace.” Of course, Japan is not without its critics, but one can safely say that it enjoys a reputation for courtesy, cleanliness, and safety. In the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, there was widespread praise of the Japanese people for their stoicism and resilience.
Still, national images are always subject to fluctuation, and at least in the West, historical shifts in the perception of Japan have been particularly dramatic. A much darker view of the country—as a land of ferocious militarists caught up in a death cult—was already fading when I was a boy in the early postwar years. U.S. soldiers returning from Japan showed color slides of Kyoto temples and stately young women in kimonos. Soon Japan was being described as the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, now firmly committed to democracy and staunchly allied with its former enemy, the United States. Growing interest in Japan and Japanese culture, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, led to an exaggerated picture of the nation’s strength. Admiration was mixed with misplaced envy, with “Japan Incorporated” now perceived as a new kind of Imperial Japan, with black-suited businessmen replacing sword-wielding warriors. Teaching Japanese and linguistics in a liberal-arts college in upstate New York for two years in the late 1980s, I met students eager to live in Japan long enough to master the language, obtain MBAs from a prestigious American institution, and thereby make their fortunes. Then in the early 1990s, the economic bubble burst. The rising superpower was now suddenly being described with another cliché—the land of the setting sun.